Finland Has Built Europe's Most Admired Education System by Focusing on "Outcomes", Giving Schools Autonomy, and by Supporting Teachers

By Valijarvi, Jouni | European Business Forum, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Finland Has Built Europe's Most Admired Education System by Focusing on "Outcomes", Giving Schools Autonomy, and by Supporting Teachers


Valijarvi, Jouni, European Business Forum


Finland can claim to have one of the best education systems in Europe, if not the world. In the most recent PISA international comparisons, in 2003, the country came top in all three areas assessed: maths, reading and science.

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Perhaps most impressive, Finland has achieved success across the board. On average, there is a less than five per cent variation in performance between different schools, and variations between rural and urban areas are minimal. Moreover, the performance of the lowest-achieving students is comparatively high. Finland does not suffer from an "educational underclass" in the way some European countries do.

The influence of family background on educational outcomes is less marked in Finland than in any other OECD country, except Iceland. This has reduced competition between schools, as most parents trust that all schools and teachers are doing equally good work with their children.

Some observers have argued that Finland's success is due to cultural factors, rather than public policy. But while such factors have played a part, government reforms during the past 20 years have been important in transforming the education system into what it is today. Indeed, as recently as the 1980s, Finnish secondary school students performed little better than the European average.

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Finland's educational strength has helped transform it from a largely agricultural country, to one of the most advanced "knowledge societies" in Europe; a nation less associated with farms, than with companies such as Nokia.

How does its approach differ from other European countries? For one thing, students stay in the same school from the age of seven through to 16. They are not sorted into different groups or schools. Rather, students of different abilities and ages learn together, allowing high-achieving students to serve as positive models for less advanced classmates. Our education system is not characterised by tracking and streaming. Efforts are made to provide instruction for different learners according to their skills and interests. We believe that personal and encouraging feedback is an integral part of effective learning.

In the 1990s, the Finnish system began to put more emphasis on individuality and freedom of choice. Schools got more freedom to include optional subjects in their curricula. Consequently, schools started to develop school-based syllabuses in collaboration with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders. The students' own interests and choices are taken into account at school when selecting content, teaching, and assessment methods. Textbooks and other learning materials encourage individualised learning.

We believe that small class sizes are a prerequisite for effective learning. In Finland, the average class size for Finnish, mathematics, and science is 19 to 20 students. Smaller group sizes make it easier to ensure a peaceful work environment.

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